Share this article

print logo

A Closer Look: Optical illusions in art

By now, the unprecedented viral sensation known as #TheDress has probably vanished from your Facebook feed. Our collective attention -- hyper-focused for a brief moment on an apparently frivolous interactive exercise amplified to pandemic levels by Buzzfeed -- has splintered off once again toward a million different cat videos, pop-culture quizzes and pictures of baby weasels riding on the backs of woodpeckers.

There was so much feverish discussion about #TheDress on social media and in the mainstream media, ranging from intelligent takes on science and art to think pieces on the cynical practice of attention-policing in the digital age, much of it immensely interesting. (And, yeah, much of it nonsense.)

But one of my favorite aspects of the phenomenon was the way in which it accomplished something art institutions, many of them filled with fantastic, perception-altering art, have been unable to accomplish on a large scale. And that is to prompt the members of the public who aren't well-versed in color theory, art history or classic optical illusions - which is to say, most of the public - to expand their notions of what "seeing" actually means.

Frequent visitors to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, whose collection of artwork expressly or implicitly about the act of seeing is deep and widely coveted, is the perfect laboratory for the kinds of experiments in perception millions of Facebook users experienced during the brief and wondrous reign of #TheDress.

The gallery's collection of Op Art, an artistic movement that emerged in the early 1960s, is all about exploiting the brain's tendency to artificially fill in gaps with educated guesses and produce unexpected effects. Similarly, many of the works donated to the gallery by Giuseppe Panza in 2007 have to do with the way color and light can be manipulated by artists to trick viewers' brains into seeing something that isn't technically "there."

Because #TheDress got me thinking about Op Art, I asked Albright-Knox curator Holly E. Hughes to share some of her favorite Op Art works from the collection. What she came up with is just the tip of the iceberg, but it's a good start for anyone whose interest in optical illusions is suddenly piqued:

1) "Drift No. 2," Bridget Riley.

Stare at this image for 15 seconds....

OK, good. No, there's nothing wrong with your brain. This famous painting by Bridget Riley uses subtle gradations in tone and undulating, hard-edged lines to create the illusion both of three-dimensionality and movement. And the longer you stare, the more it seems to move.

"Drift No. 2," a 1966 painting by Bridget Riley in the collection of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

"Drift No. 2," a 1966 painting by Bridget Riley in the collection of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

2) "Acceleration #15, Series B," by Jean-Pierre Yvaral:

This painting -- like all of these examples, best seen in person -- uses vinyl cords and painted wood to create a sense of movement and sending confusing signals to the brain about where and how to focus.

"Acceleration #15, Series B," a 1962 painting by Jean-Pierre Yvaral  in the collection of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

"Acceleration #15, Series B," a 1962 painting by Jean-Pierre Yvaral in the collection of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

3) "Polarity," Larry Sedgley

This painting, produced with a spray-gun rather than brushes, begins to ripple out from the center as you stare at it and creates an artificial sense of motion. In person, it also produces a striking after-image, in which the bright colors in the painting invert themselves to become an artwork that exists only in your mind, and only when you blink.

"Polarity," a 1966 painting by Larry Sedgley in the collection of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

"Polarity," a 1966 painting by Larry Sedgley in the collection of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

4) "Vega-Nor," Victor Vasarely

This oil painting by Victor Vasarely, a representation of the expanding universe, is one of the defining works of the Op Art movement. Its effect is simple, pulling back the curtain on the process our brains use to create a convincing sense of the three-dimensional from a two-dimensional plane.

"Vega-Nor," a 1969 painting by Victor Vasarely in the collection of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

"Vega-Nor," a 1969 painting by Victor Vasarely in the collection of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

5) "Orange Crush," Larry Poons

This painting, which looks like a bunch of random dots, is actually a sophisticated exercise in perception. If you stare at the dots for 20 seconds or so, the cones in your retina will retain the image of the dots as afterimages -- this works better in person, of course -- and with any slight movement of your eye, the dots will seem to migrate across the canvas. That's partly due to the elliptical rather than circular shape of some of the dots, which trick the brain into perceiving the dots as moving objects. Click the image for a full-screen version and give it a try:

"Orange Crush," a 1963 painting by Larry Poons in the collection of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

Story topics: / / / / / /

There are no comments - be the first to comment